People who suffer from social anxiety are often urged not to worry about what other people think. Onlookers are unobservant, they are told, being most interested in themselves. But is this really true? A team of Hungarian researchers led by Magda Bogdán at the Pszichológia Intézet has conducted a series of ambitious field studies to find out.
To start, Bogdán, a Blackadder fan, and her six colleagues took advantage of real-life meetings they were each due to attend (this included appointments with university inspectors, examination boards and other administrative duties). In one meeting, the researcher in question uttered the word “Wibble!” clearly, once per minute during proceedings. In the comparison meeting, the same researcher behaved entirely as normal. Afterwards, attendees were approached and surveyed about all others present, including the target researcher, with questions about personality and leadership potential. The key finding was that the six researchers received virtually identical ratings after the meeting in which they wibbled as compared with the meeting in which they behaved “normally”. In fact, there was a non-significant trend for wibbling to lead to higher scores on perceived creativity.
Concerned that their wibble behaviour may have been too subtle, especially in a meeting context, Bogdán’s team conducted a second study, but this time they varied their behaviour across two different public-speaking engagements, in which all eyes would be on them. In one presentation they made a loud quacking noise once per minute: “Quack!”; in the other they behaved as usual. Again, as many attendees as possible were approached after the lectures or seminars and asked to answer questions about the presenting researcher. Once more, the researchers’ personalities and professional aptitude were judged similarly regardless of their unusual verbal behaviour.
For a third and final study, the researchers took their investigations into a social setting. They attended two conference wine receptions where they were unknown. At one, they behaved as usual. At the second comparison reception, each researcher secreted upon themselves a specially designed helium canister and tube, and, with strategic inhalations, acquired for brief spells the voice of a high-pitched cartoon character (note, only one researcher was present at each reception).
Again, party guests were approached afterwards and asked questions about the target researcher. This time, five of the six researchers received near-identical appraisals across both parties, despite sounding like a squeaky mouse in one (in fact, there was a trend towards higher perceived agreeableness in the squeak condition). Unfortunately, data was omitted for a sixth researcher, who became somewhat over-immersed in his role, ate all the cheese and began scurrying between guests’ legs. He was ejected from the reception and the university’s ethics board has since launched an investigation.
“Our findings convey an inspiring, up-beat message to anyone who suffers from anxiety in social situations,” the researchers wrote. “It seems you can wibble, quack and squeak away, and not only will your reputation not suffer, it may even do it good.”
The new results complement a study published in 2000 in which Thomas Gilovich and colleagues documented the spotlight effect – people’s over-estimation of how much other people would notice their clothing and utterances (pdf).
Professor of Social Psychology Steve Reicher at the University of St. Andrews told us the need for an ethics investigation was unfortunate but that he’d been impressed with the scope of the new research. “So many psychology studies these days are conducted in labs in unrealistic circumstances,” he said. “This collection of field experiments – WIBBLE! – is a bold attempt to return psychology to the real world, almost like an inverse of Rosenhan’s classic study of the 1970s”.
Bogdán, M., Vanczák, T., Lipták, M., Pátkai, F., Halmosi, S., and Böde, W. (2013). Observer blindness for unusual social behaviour. PLuS Two, In Press.
Update – this fictional post was written for April Fools’ Day, to coincide with the open-access humour special issue of The Psychologist magazine.